A shot rings out in the Memphis sky



“Early morning, April 4, shot rings out in the Memphis sky,” proclaimed U2 in their tribute to Martin Luther King. “Free at last, they took your life. They could not take your pride.”

The song – Pride (In the name of love) – was U2’s first single to break into the US charts, and took their album to number one in the UK. For those like myself growing up in the 1980s, it became a generational anthem, and regularly features in lists of the greatest rock songs of all time.

What I missed at the time, in my precocious teenage atheism,  was the reference to Jesus in the lyrics. “One man betrayed with a kiss” it says in verse two. I should have payed more attention. The production of the song had been rushed, and Bono later felt that the lyrics were unfinished and impressionistic. But sometimes a fragment or hint is all you need.

Assassinated 50 years ago this week, it seems that Martin Luther King – like Jesus –  eerily anticipated his own death.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” Dr King told the crowd in a speech he made the day before he was shot. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

As Professor Jonathan Rider, author of the Gospel of Freedom, comments, “For a long time, King had been aware that white supremacists and local groups of Klansmen had been stalking him… He knew there were plenty of people who wanted to take him out. The forces of white supremacy had killed many civil rights workers – and he was the most visible.” *

King knew he was a target, yet refused to back down. He trusted, in the end, God would vindicate him and his cause.

There’s a clue here to understanding Jesus I might have appreciated as a teenager, had I listened. The analogy with King suggests a way to see the death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans not as an act of suicide, nor a sacrifice to appease an angry heavenly Father – interpretations that never made sense to me at the time – but as the inevitable consequence of his decision to stand for justice in an unjust world.

Jesus entered Jerusalem like a revolutionary. He threw money changers out of the temple, was scathing about the rich and powerful, and championed the poor, the weak, and the outcast. He provided a visible and radical challenge to the religious and political system of the day, and refused to back down or run away. You don’t have to have special powers to predict what happens to people like this. Then as now, the answer was clear: resist the powers-that-be, and they will, in the end, crucify you. *

Seen this way, the crucifixion becomes a symbol of Jesus’ faithfulness to the struggle for justice in the face of overwhelming opposition, even to the point of death. As Christ was killed, so also were Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and countless others throughout history who have stood for freedom and justice in the face of oppression.

And in this context, the meaning of the resurrection also becomes clear: God’s vindication of the crucified, a declaration that this was God’s cause, and an expression of hope that God’s justice will in the end be victorious. The promised land is coming, as King would put it, and so we fight on.

It’s not the only way to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus. But for those who struggle with traditional Christian dogma, it could be a place to start. It was for me.


* For the quotes from Martin Luther King and Jonathan Rider, see the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-43545620, accessed 28/3/18; and for more on this reading of Jesus, see Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the gospels really teach about Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem (SPCK 2008).

2 thoughts on “A shot rings out in the Memphis sky

  1. david broad says:

    Your piece on Martin Luther King and Jesus made me think more about the whole idea of ‘matyrs and matyrdom’ and of choosing to die for your country and your friends and for a ’cause’. By the way , for insights into the death awaiting other civil rights’leaders in 1960s/1970s USA , do watch the biographical film of one of my literary and personal heroes -James Baldwin : ‘I am not your negro’ : before he died himself , naturally, he was writing a book on the assasination of each of the leading figures . And then the rationalised suicides of people like Walter Benjamin and Arthur Koestler : those choosing death – in the sense you describe it for Jesus and King- offer the rest of us the deepest sense of what is valuable , meaningful and worthy . All of them could have just faded away out of the picture : isn’t it rather wonderful that CHristianity puts Christ’s ‘chosen death’ and then his remaining ‘presence’ , the resurrection, at the heart of its beliefs ?

  2. david broad says:

    although you have yet , as it were , converted your sermon last week into a blog entry , I thought I’d use this page to share the random thoughts it triggered for me .

    My starting point is that making sense of our species’ sexual / reproductive imperative can be addressed from the point of view of the individual or from that of society and that the two are in tension ie there is no easy answer .

    Incidentally -one gripe ! Were you not in danger , by offering selective
    biblical references , of falling into the same trap of those whom you ( and I) deprecate fro using say Leviticus’ verses for example to provide the last word on difficult subjects ?!

    Forget that and turning to the real iisues …

    On an individual level , on what basis can a Christian moralist , or any other moralist for that matter , preach an approach to channeling our sexual imperative that is justifiable , in theory and practice ? Being blunt, alongside the paths of monks and of ‘no-sex-before-marriage, in what other ways ,if any, should a good Christian put his/her sex-drive to best use ? Is abstinence , or in Freudian terms repression, the best answer that a CHristian moralist can offer ? And if other ‘outlets’ can be approved, what in Christian terms -to use the vernacular – constitutes good and bad sex ? What would a Christian psychaiatrist be likely to say ?

    Second, society : if all societies inherently incarnate sexual taboos , can a ( British 21sr century ! ) Christian postulate an ‘ideal’ – a sexual city on the hill ? I havent ever really thought serioulsy about what causes societies to adopt sexual taboos and how historically this works out in practice. Not sure where to start reading on that – the Golden Bough / anthropology/Levi-Strauss maybe ? However, if we accept that in practice every society has taboos , what are -f rom a CHristian perspective – ‘good’ taboos : where to draw a good line.

    Bluntly, whose sex lives should we admire and whose should we condemn , and on what grounds ! Germain Greer maybe ? Should we aim to remove any restrictive taboo and embrace the present-day Playboy/ advertisers’ nirvana ( a reverse taboo !) , implicitly condemning all those who arent demonstratively , and vigorously , sexually active ….

    Apologies for more questions than insights . . .One of the best things I’ve read on ‘good’ sex was something by Rowan Williams commenting on one of the ( female) characters in the RAj Quartet novels by Paul Scott -it was in a masterly collection of essays : and he sounded as if he really knew what he was writing about !

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